Coronavirus: Private company says it is willing to step in with Covid-19 testings

18 March 2020, 21:22

A private company has said it is in talks with PHE about a coronavirus test
A private company has said it is in talks with PHE about a coronavirus test. Picture: PA
Matthew Thompson

By Matthew Thompson

The World Health Organisation said this week that the most important thing in the fight against Coronavirus was testing. Test. Test. Test, they said. Test everyone.

The UK isn’t doing this. But could it be? The problem is one of capacity. We just don’t have enough tests to go round.

But I’ve spoken in confidence to a number of private companies who say they have tests ready and waiting to go.

Oven ready, you might say. But Public Health England needs to evaluate those tests, and the companies have been told it will take weeks.

As many as six weeks, in one case. At that point, it will be up to individual NHS labs to choose whether they want to use the tests. But that’s arguably time that we just don’t have.

Randox is a diagnostics company based in Northern Ireland, who have developed a test for COVID-19.

They are currently providing that test privately.

I spoke to their senior manager Mark Campbell about the test they’ve developed. He said they were in discussions with PHE about making it publicly available.

Randox says it is already providing private tests
Randox says it is already providing private tests. Picture: Randox

He didn’t give me a likely timescale, but he did say in his view, time was of the essence: “Comprehensive testing early in the process is essential to maximise your chances of success and containment.

And I think there is a pressing case at early stages when the health authorities’ capacity is stretched, to look immediately at what the private sector might be able to provide to increase the chances of catching the infection early.”

The private sector can help, and it can help now.

“We know the NHS are doing everything they can but should they require additional capacity then we have capacity and we can always ramp up that capacity to increase further,” Mr Campbell adds.

Elsewhere in the world, South Korea is top of the class in testing. They’re doing as many as 20,000 tests a day.

And it looks as though it’s working – the number of new cases there is steadily dropping. How did they do it? One guess.

They harnessed the private sector. Early on, the government passed a lawallowing the government to almost instantly approve private companies' tests.

They're testing 20,000 a day where the UK has so far been managing 4,000.

Iceland too, has tested a higher proportion of its population than any other country.

How? It partnered with a private company.

In fairness to Public Health England, they are engaging with the private sector. But it’s the speed of the engagement that is causing alarm.

I put this of course to PHE.

They said in a statement: “Public Health England has begun to evaluate a number of commercial products for diagnosing COVID-19 infection. PHE cannot endorse the commercial products that it evaluates.

"Nevertheless, by conducting these evaluations in the emergency situation of the COVID-19 outbreak, the information that we will generate may help to inform the choices being made by those NHS laboratories that wish to introduce commercial diagnostic tests for the virus in the future.”

The NHS has pledged to increase testing capacity to 10,000 a day. But in spite of repeated requests, they don’t seem to be able to tell me when that capacity will be fully active.

Now, more than ever, as the World Health Organisation urges more testing, and rich celebrities are paying for their own tests whilst NHS workers go without, shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to boost our testing capacity?